Volunteering is something that sounds better in theory than it does in application – that is, in real life for most people.
After all, with full-time jobs, children’s intense extracurricular schedules, and the general muck and mire of surviving an average week in the life of an everyday family, it’s hard to squeeze in yet another responsibility. Between tackling monumental loads of laundry, grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking and performing epic deep cleanings of a house that never seems to stay that way, the average working mom, work-from-home mom or housewife sans kids cannot even begin to imagine how she can fit in a hour here, or two hours there, to serve anything or anyone other than her husband and children – and least of all, herself.
But volunteering is something that seems to be in fashion. It’s in vogue, stylish and very much “on trend.” First of all, we see images of our friends, family members and neighbors bragging about giving a speech to convicts, tutoring at-risk youth, joining a nonprofit board or plating food at a homeless shelter. They take selfies. They post video clips of them driving to the service site. People pontificate and self-promote their do-good behavior even though Matthew 6:1 advises: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. For then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Plus, in this ultra-competitive professional world, volunteering is a way to “one-up” someone else. People post their volunteer service on LinkedIn profiles, add it to their resumes and even use posts on parent-teacher associations as ammunition to prepare for public office! Though the Corporation for National & Community Service says that people are compelled to volunteer to make a difference in their community or country, many seem to do it fundamentally based on self-interest.
Volunteering is supposed to be about serving others. If you have a talent and share it with others pro bono, you may inspire them creatively or emotionally. If you are a skilled listener or sound advisor, you might mentor youth on the fringe and bring them back from the brink of calamity. If you are a disciplined organizer, you could help an organization plan events, perform back-office clerical work or even get their physical infrastructure in shape (by cleaning, filing, etc.).
I’ve served on several nonprofit boards and completed a preparatory board leadership program for “rising stars” from the corporate world. Even today, I am affiliated with a couple of organizations.
However, when I reflect on the service that has been most meaningful to me, it was when I taught a creative writing class at a woman’s prison. I kept it up for about a year and a half before my second pregnancy sidelined me, and I never returned. But getting to know a couple dozen women whose stories converged with and, ultimately, diverged from a path that could have been my own was awe inspiring. They were murderers, domestic violence survivors, former drug dealers, ex-prostitutes and other categories of undesirability. In fact, they represented the dregs of our society – the forgotten, the locked away and the supposedly unrecoverable. But most of all, they were women who symbolized the power of overcoming, with formidable stories to tell through narrative, poetry and song.
I recently stumbled across notes they wrote me at the end of our last class. They thanked me for my time. They congratulated me on my pregnancy. They poured out their hearts about what the class taught them about themselves – and about the capacity of others to care.
That retrospective evidenced in slips of paper now battle-worn from various moves over the years rekindled something in me. And that was the need to be of service to something beyond myself or my immediate family. Even beyond those aspects of life that indirectly or directly affect me or mine, like serving at my kids’ schools or even the church we attend. I need to get out and do something that might make me feel a little uncomfortable initially, something that I otherwise would have no need or impulse to do without nudging myself away from the dust bunnies, litter box, freelance assignments or special requests. Something that doesn’t fit neatly on a resume or carry any prestige or bonus points for professional promotion.
I need to do something because we are created and made to do more than just look out for ourselves.
So one of my next assignments is to hone in on a volunteer project. It probably won’t pertain to writing, leadership, editing, strategic planning or employee engagement. It won’t be a box to check off on the path to illusory success.
But it will make a difference, one that no one other than the individuals I reach may ever know.
And that's just fine.